Assistant Professor Explores Korean Identity in New Book

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According to Ji-Hyun Ahn, globalism and an aging population have contributed to a change in what it means to be South Korean.

There’s a telling anecdote in Assistant Professor Ji-Hyun Ahn’s new book “Mixed-Race Politics and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in South Korean Media.” Ahn describes using a beige “skin”-colored crayon to draw a person. “As a young child growing up in South Korea, I never questioned why people called it a skin-colored crayon,” she said. “It was just normal.”

South Korean identity is a core component of Ahn’s research. She came to the United States in 2008 specifically so she could further her understanding of race. “The U.S. is known as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation,” she said. “I wanted to explore ideas of race and ethnicity within a Western context.”

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Ji-Hyun Ahn.South Korea is having something of an identity crisis. Ahn says the country imagined itself as a model for monoracial societies. “When I was young you never really saw foreigners or people of color living in South Korea,” she said. Things started to change in the late 1980s as globalization opened up new markets and the country’s workforce began to age. “South Korea used to be a labor-exporting country but now it imports labor from other countries like the Philippines or Vietnam,” said Ahn.

The influx of people from other countries has introduced tension around the idea of race that wasn't visible before. “Bloodline is still very important in South Korea," said Ahn. "Based on the logic of racial purity, mixed-blood (or mixed-race) used to signify a marker of (total) otherness in South Korea’s national imagery."

Critics of multiculturalism in South Korea frame the issue around immigration and opportunity. “It’s similar to what we’re seeing in the United States with the rhetoric about immigrants stealing jobs,” said Ahn. “There’s a real struggle right now about what direction to take, about whether to be ‘pure’ Korea as in the past or embrace the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Korea.”

Ahn includes four case studies in her book to illustrate the complexities of race, nation, and media in South Korea. These case studies examine mixed-race representation in contemporary South Korean popular media. “I question why biracial celebrities born to an American parent and a Korean parent are likely to be celebrated while mixed-race people born to one Korean parent and one Southeast Asian parent appear predominantly in the documentary genre or on reality TV,” said Ahn.

For example, one chapter looked at a white biracial Korean-American actor Daniel Henney.  “He was hugely popular among young Koreans when he first debuted in a Korean drama,” said Ahn. Henney’s perfect English and his determination to learn to speak Korean was initially very well received among Korean audiences. However, “his slow progress in Korean and lack of fluency almost a decade later after his debut made Henney appear less than fully loyal, framing him as not Korean enough,” said Ahn.

The “Korean Wave” has further muddied the waters of what it means to be South Korean. Global interest in South Korean culture has sparked a backlash. The rise in anti-Korean sentiment comes as the nation struggles to define itself while securing a foothold on the global stage. Ahn will further explore this topic in her next book. She traveled throughout Asia last summer researching and interviewing people about the rise in anti-Korean sentiment and the rise of new nationalism in East Asia. “We need to understand how a new affective mode, not fascination but hate, dismantles geo-cultural politics in East Asia,” said Ahn.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / May 4, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or